Germany faces up to slavery of children in post-war years

 

Huge numbers of young were forced to work in religious-run homes in awful conditions, writes DEREK SCALLY, in Berlin

EVERY TIME Dietmar Krone looks at his crippled arm, he remembers the home, the house master and two broken plates.

Now 55, he was just 14 when his mother deposited him in a religious-run children’s home. He was one of at least half a million children subjected to shocking abuse as imprisoned slave labourers in West Germany.

“One day I let two plates fall in the kitchen and, when they broke, the house master walloped me until I hit the ground,” remembers Krone, his haunted eyes framed by dark shadows. “There he kept stamping on my arm until all the bones were broken, all the muscles and tendons had been severed. In this state, he then locked me up for three days in the solitary cell.”

The parallels with Ireland’s Magdalene laundries are unmistakable: sadistic wardens, authorities unwilling to protect the vulnerable, and an entire society turning its eyes from the problem.

The difference is that in Germany, most of the estimated 500,000 to 800,000 victims were children.

“I was amazed that in Germany they were treated just like in that film The Magdalene Sisters, in 3,000 homes over 30 years,” said journalist Peter Wensierski.

A piece he wrote in Der Spiegel magazine in 2006, prompted by a phone call from a victim, was the first public acknowledgement of the abuse. It attracted a huge response from other victims. They organised themselves, petitioned parliament for an official response and yesterday in Berlin had an initial meeting with government and church figures on the issue.

Most victims explain their decades of silence through feelings of shame at having been given up by parents who could not cope. Others tell of mothers who put them in an institution to please a new partner. In some cases, teenagers were denounced by neighbours to the authorities and locked up merely for listening to rock music.

The institutions were largely church-run, with an authoritarian approach to child-rearing unknown since the Kaiser’s time.

Church authorities paid badly, provided no training or supervision and often attracted frustrated people unable to find their way in post-war society.

After hearing testimony, the so-called “round table” in Berlin will have to decide whether and how to agree on compensation for mental scars, physical handicaps and destroyed lives.

“That they refused me my education is something I consider a crime,” says Dietmar Krone. “When I was delivered to [the] home, in handcuffs, the home director said to me, ‘There’s no education here. What we need are quick, able workers’. And with that, my education was over.”

Complicating the compensation question is the fact that work which had been performed at wartime forced labour camps simply shifted to West German children’s homes.

Children worked for up to 12 hours a day in appalling conditions for negligible pay, assembling products for well-known companies such as Braun and Miele.

At harvest time, Mr Krone remembers children being forced to work on local farms. “I remember clearly one master telling the farmer in the potato field, ‘You can do whatever you like with them, except kill them’.”

At yesterday’s first sitting, nervous victims told horrendous stories of sexual abuse, of weeks of solitary confinement and of repeated suicide attempts through swallowing pins.

Only in the mid-1970s did the situation in German homes improve after changes to child welfare laws, following a public campaign by members of the 1968 student movement.

Green politician Antje Vollmer, head of the round table, reminded participants yesterday that the forum was neither a tribunal nor a court of law. “Instead we have asked all involved at the time to come and listen very carefully and to commit themselves to finding a solution,” she said.

Already, differences are emerging in the level of commitment from participants.

Germany’s Lutheran church has apologised publicly and is prepared to discuss compensation terms with victims.

“I am ashamed that these things occurred in our institutions, of broken will and dignity damaged to such an extent,” said Dr Margot Kässman, Bishop of Hanover, on German television.

Catholic church representatives apologised at the round table yesterday, but have yet to indicate whether they are willing to discuss compensation. As German law stands, parliamentary authorities say there is no legal obligation for them to pay anything.

“We will examine everything,” said Mrs Vollmer yesterday. “We cannot guarantee anything but neither are we ruling anything out.” She hopes that, by the end of next year, the round table will have found an agreement to close an episode of history that taints the founding years of West Germany.

“These people need to be given back their dignity, to be told that they didn’t do anything wrong,” said Spiegel journalist Peter Wensierski on national radio. “It was the system that failed them. Germany failed them.”